*** Spoilers Ahead ***
Last week we had a minor debate here at the Banter over Breaking Bad and the question of its place in the pantheon of great TV shows. As in, was it the greatest, the best of all time? My take on it was that while the show was and is a staggering achievement in television, with Vince Gilligan deserving immense credit for crafting a near-flawless story from start to finish, it was precisely because it could succeed so grandly despite a few missteps that The Sopranos still, for me, sits at the top of the heap when compared against all the other shows before and since. The question, though, is whether last night’s deeply satisfying series finale of Breaking Bad might be enough to make me rethink my position. Was it so good or at least so rewarding that it could inch the entire effort forward in the mind of someone who up to that point figured his mind was made up?
The final episode of Breaking Bad, titled “Felina” — what we now know is a reference to the Marty Robbins song El Paso — held no major surprises. There were no big shocks, unpredicted plot twists, or cliffhangers sure to leave viewers arguing for years to come. Despite the mess that Walt left on the floor of of Uncle Jack’s compound, the episode was, in a word, tidy — it tied up almost all loose ends and bypassed the nonsense metaphysical esoterica of Lost and the arguable ambiguity of The Sopranos. Walt settled all family business and in the end, simply by admitting to Skyler the real reason behind his rise to kingpin status in the meth underworld — “I liked it, I was good at it, and I was really, I was alive,” — he provided closure for his family and regained both a sliver of his soul and the ability to go out more on the “hero” side of “anti-hero.” Walt did what he had to do: getting revenge on his now-wealthy former business partners simply by scaring the living hell out of them rather than killing them outright, securing his family’s financial future by making those ex-partners unwillingly complicit in his crimes, saving Jesse’s life and giving him the opportunity to exact revenge on smiling sociopath Todd, and, of course, eliminating the neo-Nazis in a hail of gunfire — with Jack not even getting the chance to bargain for his life — and Lydia in a simple pour of ricin-spiked Stevia.
In the end, Walt lay dead on the floor of a meth lab while Badfinger’s 1972 song Baby Blue played, its lyrics coming right out and stating the obvious: “I guess I got what I deserved.” Honestly, it was the perfect final shot to an almost perfect series.
What Vince Gilligan realized, I think, that many fans probably didn’t appreciate and that many other showrunners before him have failed to completely grasp is that no drama that lasts for 63 episodes — around 44 hours or 2,646 minutes — is going to wrap up in 60 minutes (a 75-minute episode, minus commercials). If you look at Breaking Bad in its entirety, almost as a movie divided into dozens of segments, then you start to realize that the climax of the show was really two episodes ago; it all ended with “Ozymandias,” which was the single best episode of television I’ve ever seen. What’s followed since has been the epilogue, it’s just tougher to see because the “movie” Breaking Bad is so long. Walt’s empire, his life, everything crumbled two weeks ago, and when his infant child Holly called out for her mother, it effectively destroyed whatever was left of Heisenberg. Sure, there may have been shades of the Walt who’d “broke bad” trying to hold on, but for the most part Heisenberg was gone; any decision made in the wake of that moment was made for the “right” reasons — not to continue or rebuild Walt’s drug empire but to fix as much as he could, even if it involved violence and retaliation against those who’d committed sins even more reprehensible than Walt’s.
Not enough can be said about the astonishing place both creatively and in our cultural imagination Breaking Bad was when it went out. I’m not sure there’s ever been a show to exit this high at the top of its game and that’s what makes it so special, what allows it to tower above the television that’s come before it. There wasn’t even a moment to question over the past five short years whether Gilligan and his creation had lost their way; if there were any missteps they were infinitesimal, and the courage it took for Gilligan to make the decision to quit while the show was so very far ahead should under no circumstances be overlooked or forgotten. Breaking Bad gets to go down in history as a show that’s almost flawless in every way, precisely because Gilligan’s vision was so clear and he knew to get out before any unfortunate tangents could be explored or viewer malaise could set in. The show ended the way it started, the way it continued, the way it always was: brilliant.
I still stand by my comment from last week: that there are only a handful of excellent television shows which deserved to be called the best the medium has ever offered up. But I don’t know — maybe I was wrong. Maybe in the end Breaking Bad is the one show that stands just a little bit above the rest.